Monday, December 31, 2007

2007 Outdoors Highlights

As the year draws to a close, it's time to reflect on my outdoors experiences of 2007. All in all, it was a great year, filled with lots of forays into the woods and waters of Minnesota and beyond. Here is a summary of the year's great moments:

My sons Andy (left) and Joe

Ice fishing on Upper Red Lake
After going more than a decade without hitting the frozen water, I decided to give it a try in January. I'm glad I did. I took my Dad, Ray, and two oldest sons, Joe and Andy, to Upper Red Lake to spend several days in an ice-fishing shack. My very first fish was a beautiful 14-inch crappie, my biggest ever. Each of the boys also caught a big crappie each. Plus, we caught some nice walleyes and were able to take home our limit of two each. I'm going back to Upper Red Lake on New Year's Day to try it again. I plan to write my monthly outdoors column about the trip. Stay tuned!

Spring turkey hunting
For the first time, I hunted wild turkeys in three states: Missouri, Wisconsin and Minnesota, in that order. I hunted in Missouri with Father Joe Classen of the Archdiocese of St. Louis. He took me to his prime hunting spots, but the birds were quiet and elusive for three days. Still, it was a fun experience. Then, I came back home and hunted in Wisconsin, first with Joe and Andy and then with my friend Jim Rienhardt on land his family owns. Both hunts were successful. Andy shot a nice bird the first week in May, then I followed with another a week later. Needless to say, we'll be back in Wisconsin this spring. I only hunted one day in Minnesota, this time with my brother, Paul. We had fun, but couldn't pull a bird in close enough for a shot. We'll both get another try at Minnesota birds this spring.

More walleye action on Upper Red
I went fishing twice in the summer on Upper Red and had fantastic action both times. In May, I had to go to Bemidji to take a photo to use on the cover of the 2008 Minnesota Catholic Directory. So, I took my wife, Julie, with me and we went to Upper Red after I got done with the photos. We fished from shore in the Tamarac River, which flows into Upper Red, and caught about 50 walleyes in about five hours and took home our limit of two each. Where else can you do that well fishing from shore? Then, in June, our whole family went back up to Upper Red so that I could write a story on the winner of The Catholic Spirit Kids' Fishing Contest, Maddie Weathers of St. Elizabeth Seton in Hastings. She caught her first walleye ever and everybody caught lots of walleyes. It was a phenomenal trip and I plan on going back again this year. And, special thanks to West Wind Resort for donating the grand prize of two days and nights at the resort for Maddie and her family.

Bass bonanza
This was my best year ever for bass fishing, one of my all-time favorite outdoor activities. I hit the lakes very hard over the summer and had some nice fish to show for it. I equaled my mark for biggest bass ever with a 20-incher I caught on Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis in August. That followed a 19 1/2-incher I caught in July, also on Calhoun, which is proving to be my top lake for big bass. In all, I caught at least a half dozen bass that went 19 inches or longer, the highest single-season total of my fishing career. Can't wait to hit the lakes again this summer!


Big Sky adventure
I bagged my first antelope and mule deer ever during a hunt near Great Falls, MT with my father-in-law, Bob Guditis, and my brother-in-law, Jerry Gray, and sister-in-law, Jessica Gray. We saw lots of animals in our October hunt and it looks like we'll be going back next year, probably over Thanksgiving. That's prime time for hunting deer and elk and I'm hoping to try for my first elk ever.

Fall walleye excursion
This year was the fourth annual fall walleye trip to Lake of the Woods with my friend Pete Wolney, a classmate of mine at Totino-Grace High School (1979). This was our best year ever for big fish. Pete caught a 28-inch walleye, plus a 25-incher, while I pulled in a 24 1/2-incher and a 24-incher. Pete has caught the biggest fish all four years, while I have caught the most all four years. I guess that's a good balance, but I told Pete it's my turn to catch a wall-hanger next year. Actually, I had a big one on this year, but it got off. That'll give me something to think about 'til October comes.

I'm thankful for the many times I was able to enjoy the outdoors in 2007 with family and friends and I pray I will have many more opportunities in the coming year!

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Merry Christmas to landowners

On the Saturday before Christmas, I made an important trip with my two oldest boys, Andy and Joe, that is becoming an annual tradition. We made visits to landowners who have given us permission to hunt and gave them a Christmas gift. I think this is an important part of the hunt, as important as scouting.

We were able to give the landowners sticks of venison summer sausage that we had made at a local meat market here in St. Paul called Stasny's. The landowners seemed to appreciate the gift and I sure hope they do. We have enjoyed success on their land and I want to do everything I can to make sure we don't lose the privilege to hunt.

I don't believe it takes much to maintain good relationships with landowners. Simple gestures like making a personal visit to say thank you can go a long way. I wish more hunters would do it.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Good eatin'

Earlier this week, I made venison stew and brought it in to share with my colleagues at The Catholic Spirit. To my delight, people loved it and a large crock pot full of stew disappeared in short order.

I really enjoy cooking and eating what I harvest and, whenever possible, sharing it with others. I'm thankful that my wife and kids like fish and game, for the most part. So do my coworkers. Fortunately, I have lots of fish and game still in the freezer, so there will be many more delicious meals to come.

As I reflected on the joys of cooking and eating game, I recalled a disturbing article I read recently in a local outdoors publication called Outdoor News. One of the paper's columnists discovered that some people in a small town where he hunts have engaged in the practice of shooting deer that they see from their vehicles and leaving them lay in the fields.

When he questioned some folks about it, they merely said they enjoy shooting animals that they see. To me, this is not sport. My simple slogan is, if you're not going to eat it or give it to someone who will, don't shoot it. The exception would be if it's a nuisance animal like a coyote.

I believe this is one of the principals of stewardship that people of faith should follow. God gave us an abundance of fish and game. Let's thank him and glorify him for this by putting the creatures we harvest to good use.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Fourth hunt's the charm

My son Andy shot his first pheasant on Saturday at a game farm in Wisconsin. He was invited to the birthday party of his ninth-grade classmate, who lives on 20 acres near Hudson and deer hunts on his family's land.

It's been a tough fall for Andy. He did not get an antelope in Montana, he did not get a deer in Minnesota and he did not get a pheasant last weekend down in southwestern Minnesota.

I felt bad for him. While I don't believe it's important to be successful every time, I'd like my kids to succeed at least some of the time. So, this was a nice ending to the hunting season for him. I'm proud that he made the shot, but prouder still that he kept at it the entire fall and never complained. Not sure I would have taken the lack of success so well.

The success aspect is thought to be important by experts who analyze youth hunting and fishing participation trends. Simply put, the more success kids have, the more likely they are to continue doing it, the experts say.

I agree, yet I think there's value in coming home empty handed sometimes. It builds character. The good news is Andy doesn't appear to be losing any enthusiasm for hunting. He's already looking forward to next year. So am I.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

A time for nostalgia

I just finished reading an essay in the January edition of In-Fisherman magazine called "50 Years Loving Walleyes" by editor-in-chief Doug Stange. It is an Izaak Walton-type description of a lifetime's worth of memories chasing his favorite fish.

I highly recommend the article for those who love fishing and, especially, for those who have enjoyed fishing throughout both their childhood and adult years. Winter is a great time for warming our souls with memories of great catches and great experiences on the water.

And, don't forget to give thanks to the God who created the water and the fish that swim therein. We are extremely blessed to have an abundance of fish and lakes to enjoy, plus the prosperity to buy boats, tackle and even lakeshore cabins.

Then, there's having the freedom and the time to fish wherever we want. One thing I especially appreciate is the fact that all water in our Land of 10,000 Lakes is public. It belongs to us, which means we have access to almost every lake. There's no having to ask someone's permission to launch our boat, like we hunters have to do to get on private land. I fished about a half dozen lakes this year and I'd like to do so again next year. Thanks be to God I have the ability to do so!

Monday, December 10, 2007

One happy hunter

I had an unexpected encounter with a deer hunter on Saturday. Our family was delivering Christmas gifts for Project Angel Tree (see story in this week's Catholic Spirit), which provides a way for prison inmates to give presents to their children.

We arrived at the house of a Hmong family in St. Paul to drop off gifts for two children. There were three generations present in the home and we were surprised to see two whitetail deer head-and-shoulder mounts in the family's small living room. It turns out they were shot by the grandfather, who, obviously, is a skilled hunter. If his English had been better and if we would have had more time, I would have talked more with this gentleman and gotten the stories of these two successful hunts.

I did manage to find out that he shot the deer in Wisconsin. After we left, I couldn't help but ponder the ugly incidents between white hunters and Hmong hunters that have taken place the last two years. It's really a shame. I have met a number of Hmong people, including hunters, and they seem to be very gentle and mild-mannered overall. I believe that the violent confrontations in the woods could have been avoided.

Emotions often run high in the field like they do on freeways during rush hour. I will try to keep the image of this older Hmong hunter in my mind should I ever encounter a Hmong hunter in the woods, which I have. When I told him I admired the nice bucks on his wall, he flashed a huge smile. I couldn't help but be excited for him and hopeful that he will enjoy many more deer hunting seasons in Wisconsin.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Giving thanks still in season

I made an important phone call earlier this week. It was to a landowner on whose land I shot the deer pictured on the intro. of this blog. Though the conversation was brief, it was a necessary part of the hunt, one which, sadly, too many hunters forget.

I told him thanks for letting us hunt. My friend Bernie's son Dan also shot a deer on this man's farm near Red Wing. It was his first and it was something to celebrate. I relayed the story of our success to the landowner and let him know how much it meant for us to be able to hunt there.

I hope the privilege continues next year and beyond. I think it helps all hunters when we use good manners and take the time to say thanks to the landowners who make our hunts possible. A small gift is a good idea, too. I asked him if he would be interested in some venison summer sausage and he said yes.

I plan on dropping by with some. A brief, in-person visit makes a difference, I believe. Last year, I spent the Saturday before Christmas making the rounds to landowners and dropping off gifts. Amazingly, they all were home and seemed to enjoy the gifts. I hope to do the same this year. It's one way to enjoy the outdoors at Christmas time.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

In need of prayer

I got some sad news today from my friend Father Joe Classen in St. Louis, MO. Gene Kopp, who was one of our hosts on our turkey hunt last spring in Missouri, has cancer and is not doing well, Father Joe informed me today. He is in need of prayer, which I plan on offering today in the adoration chapel at Nativity of Our Lord in St. Paul, my parish.

Gene is a delightful gentleman who, along with his brother Glenn, welcomed Father Joe and I to their farm to hunt turkeys and share in a delicious afternoon meal after the hunt. Their hospitality was warm, gracious and very much appreciated. I have had the pleasure of meeting some wonderful people during my experiences in the woods and waters and Gene is one of them. Ditto for Glenn. That is precisely why this news especially saddens me.

Relating with landowners can be a challenge for hunters because it often doesn't take much for a landowner to get turned off and start turning away hunters. I try to behave in all the right ways when I'm afield, but I do worry about making mistakes that will upset the landowners.

Gene and Glenn put me at ease from the very beginning and sent a clear message that I was welcome on their farm. On our second morning, Father Joe and I got to their farm before sunup and went out hunting without talking to Gene or Glenn. Later, we split up and I eventually made my way back to the farmhouse, where the two men were sitting on the porch. Upon seeing me, they immmediately got up to introduce themselves and ask if I would like a cold beer. It was hot, I was thirsty and my answer was quick.

I believe God honors such generosity and I pray God, in turn, will be generous in His love, mercy and healing power to Gene and Glenn during this time.

Friday, November 30, 2007

A man of vision?

I got an eye exam yesterday and made a startling discovery -- my eyesight has gotten worse. I was suspicious of that fact during the hunting season this fall when I had trouble seeing sharply with binoculars and rifle scopes.

Amazingly, it didn't seem to hurt my performance. I made two great shots on deer, a 285-yarder in Montana on a mule deer that went through both shoulders, both lungs and the heart, and a 50-yarder in Minnesota on a whitetail buck that went through the lungs and heart. The shot in Montana was my longest ever.

After I finished the exam and ordered new glasses, this thought hit me: How are my spiritual eyes? Is my faith vision clear? I think we should ask ourselves these question every day. I went to confession last Saturday and the priest recommended that I take at least 10 minutes of personal prayer a day. For me, that's the key to keeping my spiritual vision clear. Otherwise, all kinds of things can distort my vision and fog my view of God.

So far, I'm doing pretty well on the personal prayer. I've started to re-read a book I read a number of years ago by a religious named Brother Lawrence. It's called Practice of the Presence of God. It's simple and I highly recommend it. Brother Lawrence lived in the 17th century and had an amazing gift for experiencing the presence of God in his daily life. I hope to have a similar experience.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Montana hunt: Postscript

I have stayed in touch with my father-in-law, Bob Guditis, of Great Falls, MT, since my family and I went there for an antelope hunt in late October. The deer and elk season opened while we were there and Bob and his daughter, Jessica Gray, and her husband, Jerry, continued to hunt after we left. They've been e-mailing pictures to me of their success. Jerry and Jessica each bagged a cow elk and Jerry also got a dandy mule deer buck. Bob also shot a nice whitetail buck.

I'm very happy to hear of their success. All three of them, plus Bob's wife, Sharon, did so much to help my family and I have a great trip and a great hunt. I'm thrilled they could receive this kind of reward for their charity toward us. Not only that, they will have some great eating ahead. Elk is at the top when it comes to flavorful game meats, and they shot young cows, which may be the best eating of all. They already have tried some and said it's fantastic.

They are capitalizing on an amazing phenomenon in Montana -- too many elk. The state believes that more elk need to be shot, particularly, cows, and so it extended the season by two weeks. Hopefully, that will give Bob time to fill his tag. I found out that over-the-counter elk tags are not hard to get in Great Falls, so I may try for that next year. If it's delicious meat you're looking for, this is the ticket. Even the small cows Jerry and Jessica shot still weigh about 400 pounds each, which should yield more meat than even a big Minnesota whitetail buck.

I highly recommend a Montana elk hunt. You also can get a mule deer or whitetail tag to go with it and they even sell a combination deer and elk tag. I will warn you that the rules and regulations for Montana are complicated and detailed, so it pays to look at them before applying for a tag. Visit Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks' web site at:

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Ice fishing season underway!

The "hard water" season is underway in northern Minnesota. I talked on the phone with Steve Brasel of Bear Paw Guides on Upper Red Lake and he said there is enough ice for people to go fishing, about 4-5 inches. He lives on the lake and his son, Tyler, is a guide who fishes the lake year round.

One of Tyler's specialties is northern pike, which the lake has in abundance. And, they are supersized. According to Steve, Tyler routinely catches pike of 40 inches and longer, which puts them in the 20-pound range. He targets them more earlier in the winter, but they can be caught all winter long. I have caught them in the summer and hope to get one of these 'gators on the end of my line this winter.

In addition to the pike, there are lots of walleyes to be caught, plus huge, 1-pound and bigger crappies. A friend of mine used Bear Paw Guides twice last winter and did very well both times, catching lots of walleyes on the first trip and catching his limit of crappies on the second. Normally, crappies bite better later in the winter.

I am hoping to get out on the ice with Steve and Tyler this winter. Stay tuned! In the meantime, check out Bear Paw Guides' web site at Or, call Steve at 218-368-3755 for current ice conditions and fishing reports. He said he's booking his ice houses fast on the weekends, but has plenty of availability on weekdays. I recommend going during the week. I went to Upper Red on weekdays twice last year. There are a lot fewer people and you feel like you have the lake all to yourself.

If you've got a hot spot or an ice fishing story to share, let me know!

Monday, November 26, 2007

Thanksgiving feast

I had an unusual Thanksgiving dinner this year -- grilled Alaskan red salmon and venison tenderloins. The salmon came from my trip to Alaska in July to do a feature story on Archbishop Roger Schwietz, the archbishop of Anchorage who is a St. Paul native. He was generous enough to give me some salmon to take home.

The venison came from a doe my son Joe shot Nov. 10. Actually, our family was supposed to eat out on Thanksgiving, but the restaurant we had planned to go to was closed. Normally, we prepare a big Thanksgiving dinner, but our plans changed because we were celebrating my parents' 50th wedding anniversary the day after Thanksgiving.

Because of all the prep work for that, I wanted to keep my wife out of the kitchen. We ended up scrambling to find something to eat at home when the restaurant plan fell through.

It ended up being one of the best Thanksgiving dinners I have ever had. The salmon was outstanding and the venision tenderloins melted in our mouths. We feasted on grilled venison again on Sunday, courtesy of the buck my brother Paul shot. I also prepared my specialty -- beer-battered walleye. Both were delicious.

This begins the season of cooking and eating the bountiful fall harvest of fish and game. I like eating what I harvest about as much as the harvest itself. Let the feast begin!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Welcome to my blog

It's been a busy fall in the outdoors for me and my family and friends and I'm looking forward to sharing these experiences with you via my monthly outdoors column and here in my new blog. I'm excited to use this way of connecting with people, including Catholics, who love the outdoors, whether it be fishing, hunting, hiking, biking, boating or taking pictures.

And, I want to hear from YOU! Please feel free to respond with your experiences, what you enjoy, where you've gone and how it went, whether it be catching a big fish, watching a spectacular sunrise or just experiencing God's peace and the majesty of His creation. Did you hear Him speak while in the outdoors? Did you feel His presence? Did He work powerfully in your experience? Did He do something dramatic? Answer a prayer?

Let me know. I also hope this can be a forum in which people who enjoy the outdoors can express their opinions and exchange information that can help others. I look forward to hearing from you!

In the meantime, I'll pass along a brief story about my Minnesota deer hunt this fall near Red Wing. It was a lesson in perseverance. I was trying to help my No. 2 son Andy get his first deer. On opening day, we saw one deer and Andy couldn't get a clear shot. On the second day, we split up and neither of us saw one. In the meantime, my friend Bernie Schwab and his son, Dan, went to a different farm opening day and Dan got his first deer, a 10-point buck. They were going to go back the next day, but they hit a deer with their vehicle on the way down and didn't make it.

I hunted this same farm a few days later and shot the buck in the above photo just minutes into legal shooting hours. I was very grateful for the success because it allowed me to visit my dying aunt one last time. As it turned out, it was the last good day for her and she died just a few days later. I am grateful that God helped things unfold as they did. I look forward to lots of meals of venison this winter.

Now, it's your turn. Please tell me about your outdoor adventures this fall!

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Antelope hunt becomes lesson in virtue

Clouds stretching across the Montana horizon glowed a deep crimson on a late-October morning.

I was taking a truck ride east of Great Falls with my two oldest sons, Joe and Andy, my father-in-law, Bob Guditis, and his son-in-law, Jerry Gray. We were headed to a large cattle ranch in search of pronghorn antelope.

It was the first day of our hunt and I considered the spectacular sun­rise to be our official welcome to Big Sky country.

The excitement had been building for several months as Bob guided us through the process of applying for antelope tags on the Internet and preparing for the hunt.

It's about relationships

We needed the education. We knew next to nothing about pronghorns other than they are small, fast and have exceptional eyesight. They also are very skittish and usually run at the first sign of trouble. Some­times, they don't stop until they have sprinted a mile or more.

On the surface, this hunt was about strategizing the most effective ways to fill our antelope tags. But, there was a deeper meaning to this experience that was as vast as the sprawling grasslands of the Judith Basin, where our hunt took place.

It had to do with relationships and the bonds between grandparents and grandchildren, and be­tween in-laws and adopted grandchildren and daughter-in-law.

In May of 1995, my first wife, Jennifer, died of colon cancer, leaving me a single father of two children, Joe and Andy. Two years later, I remarried. My new wife, Julie, and I had two more children, William and Claire.

All six of us made the 15-hour drive to Great Falls to spend MEA weekend with Jennifer's parents, Bob and his wife, Sharon, who had lived in Kalispell, Mont., when Jennifer and I married in 1990. They stayed there until two years ago, when they moved to Great Falls.

Trying to figure out how to label all of the relationships in this group is complicated. But, that's the only part that has been difficult over the last 10 years of my marriage with Julie. By God's grace - and Bob and Sharon's great love and generosity - the transition from Jennifer to Julie has been as seamless as the rolling, grassy terrain of the Great Falls region.

In St. Paul's letter to the Galatians, he says that there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free person; we are all one in Christ. That's the way it has been in the Guditis family.

They show no preference for their biological grandchildren. They consider all four of our kids their grandchildren. And, they consider Julie their new daughter-in-law. In fact, Sharon views her more like a daughter than a daughter-in-law.

Truly, these four days were a chance to bask in the richness of God's amazing grace as he brought all of us together for a special time of fellowship. It was simple, it was fun, it was holy.

And, not long after that beautiful sunrise, it also became very hard work.

More than a hunt

The pretty hills that looked so scenic from a distance loomed very large as we looked up from the truck at the base of them and spotted a dozen or so antelope that seemed like tiny specks as they grazed at the top of the highest point of land on the ranch.

Our task was to get within shooting range of those antelope. To that end, Grandpa Bob had provided some of the best tools available.

The day before the hunt, he handed each of us a high-powered rifle that he had sighted at a local gun range. He did it so that we could aim right on the front shoulder of the antelope for up to 300 yards without having to compensate for bullet drop. In other words, he made the aiming part dummy proof.

It all sounded good on paper, but it became an extremely difficult task in the high winds that plague the region at this time of year.

In the end, the boys got a good amount of shooting, but no antelope. I managed to bag a small male, plus a bonus mule deer that fell at a distance of 280 yards.

The boys felt some momentary disappointment over their failure to harvest an antelope, but it quickly turned to a deep satisfaction over a hunt that was about much more than bagging game.

It was about deepening the bonds with their Grandpa Bob and Grandma Sharon, with their Uncle Jerry and Aunt Jessica, who took turns hunting with us.

It also was about building character. For four days, we spent hour after hour driving and walking the hills of the ranch trying to find our quarry. Then, we would make stalks of a mile or more to get close.

Sometimes, the antelope would spook before we could get a shot. Other times, we would get one or more long shots that failed to find the mark, and then the pronghorns would bolt out of sight.

At times, it was very frustrating, both for the young shooters and their father, who really wanted to take a photo of their success. Thank goodness they had a grandpa who could always put things in the proper spiritual perspective.

Sharing a little wisdom

On the last day of the hunt, his encouragement was sorely needed. We had found a group of five antelope that were bedded down in a grain field on a farm next to the ranch. We got permission to hunt, then made a skillful stalk on the animals, getting within 200 yards, which would give the boys a makeable shot.

Joe and Andy shouldered their rifles as the antelope continued to lounge in the field. But, high winds in their faces made it impossible to steady their guns. They motioned for Jessica to bring shooting sticks.

Just as she got to them with the sticks, the antelope stood up and began to run. They took some shots in desperation, but the antelope disappeared over the next hill unscathed. The stalk was a thrill, but the result was disappointing.

That was our last close encounter with antelope. It also was an opportunity for Grandpa Bob to share his spiritual wisdom with the boys. I'm glad to say he is bold in taking advantage of situations like these.

"Perseverance is a Christian vir­tue," he said. "You've got to keep trying. Quitting is the biggest reason for failing in life."

He then proceeded to tell the boys that he flunked out of engineering school twice at the University of Notre Dame before successfully graduating in 1966. His G.P.A. fell below the minimum of 2.5, and he had to go to summer school to push it back up.

Life is full of challenges like these, he said, and the key is to keep trying.

This lesson was a backward way of inviting us to come back again. I don't think there's any doubt we will. Hiking the hills, stalking antelope and spending time with Grandpa Bob and Grandma Sharon is a great way for boys to become Christian men.